The announcement is made as if a pro wrestler is about to enter the ring, when in fact a live American bison is just about to exit one: "Heeeerrrre commmes Raaalphieeee!"
With that, a square pen is opened and out charges Ralphie V, the 18-month-old female mascot of the University of Colorado. It's April 19, and Ralphie, like the 2008 CU football team, is only halfway through her debut appearance of the season. She needs to complete one more run of Folsom Field before the second half of an intrasquad scrimmage involving the two-legged Buffaloes commences. The record spring-game crowd of 17,800 goes wild, and so, it seems, does Ralphie. She begins the run from the end zone with five handlers in tow, quickly shaking and nearly trampling one of them along the sideline. By the time she reaches the far 30-yard line and circles toward the opposite side of the field, a lone handler remains tethered to the animal, and is barely able to keep pace. Now, eight handlers - all CU students - converge on Ralphie, regain control and guide her at full stride again into the back of an awaiting trailer as the PA announcer prods the onlookers, "How about a big welcome for Ralphieeeee Fiiive? Yoooouuuurrrr Ralphieeeeeee!"
The fans love it. And so, apparently, did Neill Woelk of the Boulder Daily Camera, whose first impressions of the new mascot read: "She's a brute at the line of scrimmage (she knocked down one handler out of the gate on each of her runs), she can break tackles (she dropped four handlers on her second run) and she has a nose for the end zone. The best runner in Folsom Field on Saturday - in or out of uniform - was Ralphie. Definitely the star of the game."
But some interested observers outside Boulder aren't cheering. Officials at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have for years campaigned against the use of live animals as collegiate mascots. "We are against animals being held captive for entertainment purposes," says PETA animals-in-entertainment specialist Daniel Hauff, "and that's purely what this is."
According to USA Today, the number of colleges and universities that regularly employ live animals at athletic events remains relatively small (33), but has fallen by only a half-dozen or so over the past 30 years. Collegiate traditions die hard, which explains the multigenerational names attached to many of today's living, breathing mascots. Their very lineage is often a source of school pride. But can one justify the presence at football games of Smokey IX, the University of Tennessee's bluetick coonhound, any more easily than the exhibition of Mike VI, Louisiana State University's Bengal-Siberian tiger?
"As a general matter, we do think that many domesticated animals - dogs and horses, for example - can do just fine in settings with a lot of people," says Mike Markarian, executive vice president of The Humane Society of the United States. "If a dog is trained properly, has the right temperament and can do well in large crowds, we don't see that as a problem."
Upon her arrival at Texas A&M University in 2001, Reveille VII, the school's latest mascot collie, "attended and passed several obedience classes after she showed nervousness around Kyle Field's more than 80,000 fans," according to TheBat.com student web site. She has since bitten individuals on two occasions, most recently last fall, causing her to miss a football game while being held for observation. Tennessee's Smokey IX was accused of biting a University of Alabama football player who fell on the dog during pregame warm-ups in 2006, marking at least the third time that opposing players have had direct physical contact with the Volunteers' mascot. In 1994, Double T, the horse carrying Texas Tech's Masked Rider student mascot, turned a corner of the football field during pregame festivities, lost the rider due to a saddle malfunction, then ran out of control through scurrying players and officials and into the cement wall of a stadium ramp. The horse died instantly.
Those incidents notwithstanding, the Humane Society sees much greater potential for problems when schools adopt exotic animals as mascots. "Even if they are bred in captivity, they retain their wild instincts and can be very dangerous around people," Markarian says. "It's also inhumane in many cases when people cannot provide them with the habitat or care that they need."
LSU's Mike VI resides in a $3 million, 15,000-square-foot habitat featuring its own waterfall and oak tree. Some 5,600 donors helped foot the bill. Initial plans called for an education center to be built to enlighten Mike's 100,000 annual visitors about the Bengal-Siberian tiger's status as an endangered species, but no funds could be secured for its ongoing maintenance. "If you're spending millions of dollars at a university to build a lavish habitat, you could argue that that might be better than what many zoos have," Markarian says. "But we still believe it raises serious questions about whether it's appropriate to have certain species in captivity when it's really not necessary."
The tiger's caretaker, Dr. David Baker, director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine and attending veterinarian at LSU, declined AB's interview request, but he told The New York Times in 2006 that Mike was acclimated to crowds at soccer matches from within a portable cage before attending his first football game, and that the tiger would not be sedated or forced into his trailer on football game days. Of PETA officials, Baker told Times reporter Jere Longman, "According to them, humans don't have the moral authority to eat, own, exhibit or experiment upon animals. I don't share that religion."
"If this veterinarian is on the university payroll, how forthcoming is he going to be about how the animal is actually treated?" Hauff asks. "Dragging these poor animals out in front of crowds at sporting events is a stressful experience for the animal, regardless of how the animal is treated at any other time."
The simple remedy, according to Hauff, is already exemplified on the vast majority of college campuses - just put a human being inside a furry suit. "We believe that costumed mascots are undeniably the most effective ambassadors for their teams," Hauff says. "Human mascots are a lot more versatile than animal mascots, which can't interact directly with the crowd, attend charity functions, visit hospitals and do other things that human mascots can. And clearly it's someone in the costume who has chosen to be there and who understands the situation, which is entirely different than some animal that's caged and then dragged out for people's enjoyment."
Earlier this year, University of Colorado officials apologized for an appearance at a Denver Nuggets game made by Chip, the school's costumed buffalo mascot. Dressed in a T-shirt, baggy pants and do-rag, and sporting gold teeth and a black teardrop tattoo, the mascot's actions were criticized as celebrating gang culture. Meanwhile, CU athletics administrators make no apologies for their use of a live animal - a 75-year-old tradition that dates back nearly as far as the Buffaloes nickname itself. Gail Pederson, who oversees the Ralphie program, chalks up the nearly out-of-control spring-game stampede to handlers adjusting to Ralphie V's smaller size (compared to Ralphie IV) and an ill-fitting harness. She insists that, just like every Ralphie before her, "She's treated like royalty."
The current Ralphie resides on an undisclosed bison ranch about 25 miles from the Boulder campus, safe from media cameras and the public eye. "She lives a natural life other than on game day and a few appearances a year," says Pederson, a self-described animal-rights activist. "I personally support PETA and the Humane Society. If there were anything that I felt was unethical or inhumane, I'd be the first one all over it. I monitor that very closely."
To Pederson, Ralphie is more than an ambassador for the Buffaloes, she's something of a champion for bison everywhere. "We work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support education for the preservation of bison habitat, and we work with the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to introduce bison back onto their range," she says. "They've come to our events to do education, and we do education. I believe it's really beneficial to the species."